Friday’s Sweet 16 slate left very little doubt on who the real contenders are

After a mostly lackluster Thursday set of games (albeit give some props to Steve Fisher and San Diego State for hanging with Arizona for most of the 40 minutes during the late match in Anaheim), Friday’s games did not disappoint.

Among the key highlights from Indianapolis and New York:

  • Michigan led Tennessee 60-45 with 10:55 remaining in the contest.  But the Wolverines went ice cold from the 6:45 mark on.  Tennessee cut the lead down to the slimmest of margins at one point following a Jordn McRae three-point play with 1:56 to go made it 72-67.  The Vols got a bit closer after Josh Richardson scored on a layup, which turned out to be the last of his 19 points with 24.6 seconds left.  Michigan then turned the ball over on their next possession and immediately McRae made a nifty layup to cut the lead down to 72-71 with 10.8 seconds remaining.Seconds late, the officials ruled Michigan’s Caris LeVert caught the ball with one foot on the baseline and 9.6 seconds left, Tennessee Coach Cuonzo Martin made the smart call by giving Stokes a chance to win it with a basket or draw the foul.  Sadly, the charging call went against the Vols and Nik Stauskas made 1 of 2 free throws before a 70 feet heave went awry.
  • Tennessee and Michigan was like viewing the undercard to a boxing match.  Louisville and Kentucky was the battle of heavyweights.  The defending champs led all but 65 seconds inside Lucas Oil Stadium, as Rick Pitino looked to extend his Sweet 16 Tournament winning streak to 12 wins in a row.  But after Kentucky Coach John Calipari mentioned to his prized freshmen class before the game that, “you’ll get punched in the mouth and you’re going to taste blood…You can fight or you can brace yourself for the next shot. They fought.”  I guess the pleas of Ashley Judd were ringing loud and clear as the clock struck midnight in Central Indiana.  Trailing by 13 midway through the first half, the Cats clawed their way back into the contest being down seven with four minutes to play.  After the final media time out, things simply clicked when all the chips were down. First, with about 2/3 of the crowd supporting Big Blue Nation–sophomore Alex Poythress scored five points and managed to get a key block on a Russ Smith layup attempt.  This was part of an 7-0 UK run which tied the game at 66 with 2:11 left.Coach Calipari said in post-game remarks to the media, “We were begging him (Alex) the whole game to start playing, and he played at the right time.”  From there, it was the Kentucky freshmen who really manned up against the defending national champs, who were led by senior Smith.  Aaron Harrison took a pass from freshman phenom Julius Randle and made a spot-up jumper from the corner to give the Wildcats a lead they would not relinquish.  Both finished with 15 points, as did Dakari Johnson, another freshman.  On the next possession, Wayne Blackshear of Louisville was fouled. The 71 percent career free throw shooter missed the front end.  Randle then came down and made two free throws as Kentucky led at that point by three.  Harrison guarded Smith and forced him to miss a very difficult three point shot.  By then, the world realized that there would be a different champion here in 2014.  Aaron Harrison hit a three and Randle iced the game with two free-throws, 74-69 being the final score.  Four of the five starters for UK finished in double figures, while Luke Hancock in his final collegiate game finished up with 19 points on 6 of 9 shooting and a perfect four of four attempts from the free-throw line.  The most telling stat was that the Cardinals missed 10 free throws and that proved to be their ultimate undoing.
  • In “The World’s Most Famous Arena”, all refurbished from the inside–DeAndre Daniels compiled 19 of his 27 points in the second half as UConn held off Iowa State by five, 81-76.  The Huskies shot 52 percent for the game and offset a singular sensational performance by the Cyclones’ Dustin Hogue, who finished with a game high 34 points on 15 of 19 shooting.  For Iowa State, the rest of the starters went a combined 14 of 39 between four players (Daniel Edozie played seven minutes, but did not score).
  • Sparty marches on again to another Elite Eight.  Tom Izzo gets it done again by stopping top seed Virginia in a come from behind 61-59 barnburner.  Virginia was held to only 35 percent shooting for the game, which was about 19 percentage points lower than their two tournament wins combined and over 10 percent more at 45.7 during the regular season.  Brandon Dawson played the role of sparkplug this time around as he led all scorers with 24 points and 10 rebounds.  Dawson was the only Spartan player to end up shooting over 50 percent from the field at 9 for 16.

 

With TBS taking control of the Saturday slate of the Regional Finals, no longer will fans have to stand around inside Best Buy or Radio Shack stores to see what the score is–since CBS for years had the old tip times of around 4:40 and 7:05 Eastern time on Saturdays.

The remaining top seeds will play tonight, as Florida gets the final double digit seed and the last of the mid-majors.  Will the glass slipper finally fit again for Cinderella minded Dayton?  The oddsmakers say this game will be over by halftime.  That game will start at 6:09 Eastern from Memphis.

At about 8:49 Eastern time tonight, it will be off to Anaheim for top seed Arizona and the second seed of Wisconsin, the third Big Ten team to advance to the Elite Eight with a businessman’s like effort in demolishing Baylor, similar to the way the Bears smashed Creighton the weekend before.

Sunday’s games will still be on CBS, 2:20 and 5:05 p.m. Eastern time for New York and Indianapolis, respectively.  I like both Big Ten teams to advance to Arlington and the Final Four, but you don’t get this far in the tournament without facing some stiff competition.  In the case of UConn and UK, will these games match up in terms of overall excitement similar to the classics of 1992, 1998, 1999, and 2006?

Even with the defending champions saying farewell, I still have Florida winning it all.  So, there is something to play for in addition to Tom Izzo looking to reach his seventh Final Four since 1999 for Michigan State.  See you all late tomorrow for a brief recap of the Regional Finals and by the middle part of this coming week will be my comprehensive thumbnail sketches of each school at the Final Four.  Plus, you will see a changing of the guard with three Turner outlets taking over on Super Saturday, the first time that CBS will not be covering the national semifinals since 1981.

Hope to see you then.  In the meantime, enjoy the games.

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